I ended up spending about a week in Jerusalem, primarily because my final pre-booked flight was scheduled for the 10th of June out of Tel Aviv. And, even though Tel Aviv is supposed to be higher-tech and more modern than its land-locked counterpart, I couldn't find a cheap hostel there, and really, if you're in Israel, isn't Jerusalem what first comes to mind? Additionally, as some of you may have already read, getting into Jerusalem was hard enough, I felt like I needed to get my money's worth.
All the cheapest places to stay are in the Old Town, which is, as you might expect, right in the middle of the city. It's surrounded by massive stone walls which encompass all the places you've read about both in the Bible and on the news: The Dome of the Rock, The Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, etc.
It was an amazing experience - though not as illuminating as you might think. Don't misunderstand - As a Christian it is absolutely incredible to be in the city mentioned in the Bible 700+ times; to walk through the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys of the old town; to see the hustle and bustle of shopkeepers of all races and creeds and backgrounds trying to scratch out a living.
While certainly amazing and humbling, it's disturbing and unsettling as well. There's unrest here. It's lying just below the surface, but I could feel it when I walked from quarter to quarter. It's many layered, runs really deep and won't stay buried forever. As with anything, it's not just one thing. There are a lot of conspirators: the fact that those that consider themselves the most faithful of the three major religions are packed into a stone-walled area smaller than the campus of my alma mater; the fact that each of these groups think the other is not only wrong, but in some cases a threat to their way of life; the fact that a large part of Jerusalem proper is walled off East Berlin style to keep one group in and one out... I found an English copy of Newsweek last week with an article on Jerusalem in it. It meant a whole lot more after being there:
Even the little things contribute - like the fact that the weekend in Jerusalem really is three days long - The Muslims recognizing Friday as their Holy day, The Jews recognize Saturday, and the Christians observe Sunday. You have to find out the religious affiliation of the store owner to know if you can buy bread in the morning.
The longer I had to think about it, the more I realized I personally had a couple major problems with the whole Jerusalem experience. And, it may come as a surprise to some of my more conservative Christian friends. Here we go:
1) There are churches and altars and chapels built on every site "they" think something happened. The Via Dolorosa being the primary example (Though there's one in Bethlehem called "the Milk Grotto" where it's said that while nursing Jesus, a drop of Mary's milk fell to the ground and turned the stone white. Now there's a chapel there).
Realistically, the city has changed so much over they years (Not to mentioned being destroyed a couple times), that no one really knows that this very spot, this block of stone is where Jesus fell the second time. And yes, I absolutely get it, and completely agree that it should be remembered. But a chapel at every spot? And, if indeed the spot is exactly correct and that holy, why allow shopkeepers to sell pirated DVDs of "Hellboy" right next to it?
2) Worshiping the "stuff": It seemed that many, especially the orthodox, were very, very concerned about "the stuff". They were more concerned about kissing stones and altars and relics than talking to the people passing by or greeting a fellow believer.
Now, I use the examples above to illustrate a larger point. I'm certainly not one to cast stones; Lord knows I have some of the biggest faults of anyone. And likely most of the above is based on my protestant upbringing in the US. However, in my heart of hearts, I can't think that Jesus would be overly happy seeing how much importance people have put the "stuff". He wasn't too concerned about it when He was here.
Anyway, I didn't wallow in my observations the entire time. I did manage to see a few things. I've listed some highlights below, explaining some with words, some with pictures and some with both.
The Old Town: The walls of old Jerusalem are amazing in themselves, but the city inside is an experience not to be missed. During the day it is a busy, noisy, bustling hive of mom and pop shops - restaurants, souvenir shacks, butcheries and grocery stores. Every square inch is used, from arched ceiling to stone floor. Tourists, school groups, backpackers and locals flood the uneven cobblestone streets until it seems impossible for anyone to make forward progress. When darkness falls, the bright open portals of commerce and business are transformed into large metal walls and gates. The chaos and noise are replaced by dark, vacant corridors and an eerie silence broken occasionally by the echoes of footsteps and the sounds of a family having dinner in an apartment above the street. A duality seemingly appropriate for the Holy City.
Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives: The Jewish Tombs, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations. I'll let the pictures tell this story.
Garden Tomb: A British group maintains an area of land just to the north of the old city. Aptly named "The Garden Tomb", it's a setting right out of Sunday school. A decided departure from the huge mass of stone that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, the garden tomb "looks" like you think it would based on the gospels. Again, more emphasis on the "stuff", but an interesting contrast to the Old City.
Walk Through the Four quarters: I took a 3 hour walking tour through the old city with a guide who was born and raised in the Armenian quarter. Lots of information. It was money well spent.
Bethlehem: Right, so it's not actually a part of Jerusalem, but as it's located just six kilometers to the south, it might as well be. Again, not to get stuck on "the stuff", but I really wanted to see Bethlehem. Besides, it will make Christmas all that much more fun for me. There were two things of note:
The Church of the Nativity - It was one of the most beautiful churches I've ever been in. To be honest, the outside is not much to write about, but the inside was truly stunning. It had more ornaments, incense holders, candle holders and every other adornment you can think of than any five churches in the US. I was there in the morning, and caught the light shining in through the windows of the ceiling - it was surreal.
Crossing into the Palestinian Authority - Don't worry, I'm not going to get into the politics here. But to get to Bethlehem, you have to cross through "the wall" which is a 10-meter high concrete fence separating the "Israel" part of Jerusalem from the "Palestine" part of Jerusalem. I was nervous going in, despite hearing from others that it was no big deal. And, they were right - my American passport was the magic key. They didn't even look at it. I just waved it, and they let me pass right by the poor Arab guy who was putting his hand in the scanning device right next to me. I wasn't in Berlin when the wall was up, but it must have been somewhat similar.
Girls With Guns: Alright, so not really a great highlight, but one that shouldn't be left out. In Israel, it seemed every fourth person had a gun. As you might imagine, there is a large police presence (military and city) at all times in the city. On the one hand you feel relatively safe, on the other, you feel there's a pretty good chance you would get caught in a crossfire if something did break out. Anyway, for those of you who read my earlier entry on security know, there are a lot of girls in the Israeli Military, and a lot of cute ones at that. Again, it may just be the uniform. However, when there's a uniform, there's also a gun. And not a small one either. Each of these 18-25 year old girls were walking around with huge assault rifles over their shoulders. In some cases, tour groups would have a guard assigned to them. So, you'd see a pack of teen-aged kids walk by with a 20-something girl dressed just like them in plain clothes with a shoulder bag... no, that's a rifle. Strange.
All said and done, I am absolutely glad I took the time to visit Jerusalem, and would recommend it to anyone. It's got its faults, but it is a beautiful city, and steeped in history no matter where you are from.